(Originally posted on 20 April 2007 at The Screengrab. Reprinted with permission.)
Brian DePalma has always been one of those directors people either love or hate. I’m not sure I’ve met a movie lover who doesn’t have an opinion on the guy one way or the other, and admittedly I once fell into the anti-DePalma camp. Sure, I’ve always enjoyed his most popular movies, like Carrie, but I was otherwise content to echo the popular line on the guy — that his films contained little more than empty technique and scenes cribbed wholesale from Hitchcock. I suppose that one might chalk my original feelings about the guy to the fact that I first saw a lot of his movies during his Snake Eyes/Mission to Mars period, and didn’t see many of his classics until a few years later.
Of all DePalma’s movies, the one I’ve rewatched the most over the years has been Phantom of the Paradise. While it’s not quite my favorite of his — that’d be his painfully personal Blow Out — it’s the most fun film he’s made. In addition, it’s almost certainly the most basic expression of the power struggles that are often at the core of DePalma’s films — namely, that he who controls the image holds the power. One finds this power jockeying in many of De Palma’s best films. In Femme Fatale, there’s the reclusive former jewel thief and the paparazzo who wants to photograph her; Body Double finds a peeping tom at the mercy of a psycho who sets up him to witness a killing.
Phantom of the Paradise, in addition to being a suspense movie, is also a rock musical, and so its power players are part of that scene. In one corner, there’s the legendary superproducer Swan (Paul Williams), and in the other, the hapless songwriter Winslow Leach (William Finley). Swan is the most powerful figure in pop music as the film begins, in large part because he’s able to manipulate the rest of the world to his point of view. This skill finds its most memorable visual expression in the low-hanging doorways in the diminutive Swan’s home and offices, through which he fits perfectly but which cause most visitors to duck to avoiding hitting their heads.
If Swan begins the film with incredible power, Winslow Leach starts out with next to none. Like many a fledgling musician, he’s desperate to be discovered, and when we first meet him he’s crashing a Swan concert in order to play a song from his “rock cantata, based on Faust” for the hitmaker. Swan likes the sound, but not the singer, and so he swindles Winslow out of his music and then won’t return his phone calls. When Winslow drops in on Swan’s open auditions for the stolen cantata, Swan has him arrested for trespassing, thrown into jail, and volunteered for a medical experiment that costs him his teeth. When Winslow tries to escape, he ends up having his face severely burned in one of Swan’s record presses before stumbling into the night.
The film’s best scene is one that represents both a turning point in the power struggle between Swan and Winslow. Winslow, presumed dead, has hidden out in Swan’s new concert hall, the Paradise, donning a cloak and a mask to hide his charred face. At the same time, Swan has begun rehearsals for his re-arranged version of Winslow’s cantata, which in its new form has morphed into a lightweight nostalgia trip, in keeping with the then-prevailing tone of Swan’s music. Not only has Swan turned a song that was originally a dramatic anthem into a surf rock dance tune with lyrics like “upholstery/ that’s the way that it’s supposed to be/ when I hold you close to me,” but his band the Juicyfruits, whom Winslow positively despises, are the stars of the show. Fed up with seeing his vision turned into dross, Winslow (now the titular Phantom) decides to take action.
What follows is perhaps the most skillful use of split-screen I’ve ever seen. On the right half of the screen, we view the rehearsal in progress, while on the left we see Winslow hide a bomb in the trunk of a prop car just before it gets wheeled out on the stage. The scene is a quintessentially Hitchcockian setup — the Master once stated that suspense is the knowledge that a bomb is going to go off rather than the explosion itself — but the split-screen effect only amplifies the tension. Key to this effect is that both sides of the split-screen are composed of long takes. Rather than cutting back between the trunk of the car and the oblivious would-be victims, DePalma places them side by side, as the audience waits for the inevitable. He even has a character remark about hearing a ticking sound (which we in the audience can hear loud and clear), but Swan’s lieutenant persuades him to get in the car anyway.
Sometimes in DePalma’s split-screen scenes, the shots will represent the literal points of view of two different characters, but this isn’t the case in Phantom of the Paradise. Rather than seeing what Winslow and Swan see during this scene, we see the images of what they’ve created. In Winslow’s case, he’s channeled his energies into destroying the vision of Swan, who previously destroyed him. In Swan’s case, he’s witnessing his creation (or more precisely, the one he stole) coming to fruition, only to have it go up in flames. It’s interesting that Swan’s half of the scene ends with a close-up on his face, which hardly flinches as the bomb goes off. Like any successful businessman, he is able to see even his disasters as opportunities for change.
I’m not opposed to the use of split-screen, but most of the examples of it that spring to mind are intended as either gimmickry or as throwbacks to those vintage gimmicks. DePalma is one of the few directors who has consistently integrated this technique in a way that feels natural rather than show-offy. Watching Phantom of the Paradise again made me realize that the characterization of his direction as empty virtuosity is unfair. It’s virtuosity, to be sure — technically, DePalma is the equal of any filmmaker of his generation — but in his best films, every stylistic flourish serves a purpose, and the level of craft that goes into these films does not detract in the least from their effectiveness. He may not be as revered as Hitchcock, but DePalma is a master of suspense in his own right.